Raghav Bahl: The digital ball game
Preparing to launch a pure-bred digital media company, the former TV baron is surfing, writing and actively collaborating with his wife
Raghav Bahl, the founder and former managing director of Network18— which operates, through its subsidiaries, channels such as CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN, IBN7, CNBC Awaaz and Colors—seems to be enjoying his new innings in digital media. He now has a brand new company, Quintillion Media Pvt. Ltd, a new office, and new staff. In about three months he will be ready to launch his first digital product, a mobile-first news service called Thequint.com.
“The new innings is fun,” says Bahl, who had a swank Network18 office at the Express Trade Tower in Noida, near Delhi—he has since moved to a new building in the same area. “To build a digital media company you have to focus equally on content and technology. In content, you have to focus equally on the written word and video. These trends are now crystal clear,” he says.
Digital media products have to be powered by state-of-the-art technology, and Quintillion, which literally means 10 to the power of 18, is building capability by hiring engineers. The name, of course, signifies the hope that the firm will be 10-fold of what Network18 was. And to win, Bahl is working harder, both in terms of time spent on the project and in understanding the new medium.
Bahl says the idiom of the Internet is young, and Quintillion is building a pure-bred digital media company. It’s a new medium for the man who ran a large broadcasting business for 20 years. On 29 May, Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) took complete control of Network18 Media and Investment Ltd, the company he founded in 1993. Bahl walked out of the company, with a deal of over Rs.700 crore.
In early 2012 Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries had bought debentures in Network18’s promoter group companies, convertible into shares at any time within 10 years of putting in the cash into Network18 (TV18 Broadcast Ltd, which operates the news channels, is a subsidiary of Network18). However, Reliance exercised the option barely two and a half years later, leading to Bahl’s exit.
The news shocked the media industry. Bahl says, albeit unconvincingly, that the takeover wasn’t so sudden. A short while before the exit, Bahl had moved into a new office at the Express Trade Tower tastefully designed by his wife Ritu Kapur, also an employee at Network18. The sizeable ground- floor Network18 office was equipped with 10 television screens that he surfed with the help of an iPad-based remote. In contrast, his Quintillion office has a lone screen since his new role does not require him to watch much TV. Instead he is reading and watching videos online, and gets his newspaper fix with his morning tea. The 25-30 televisions at his home—including one in the washroom—haven’t been dismantled though.
Art by Lalu Prasad Shaw and Arpita Singh, which hung on the walls of Network18’s office, has been bought from Reliance. “Ritu loves them. She knows art. I don’t. Prasad is an upcoming artist rising rapidly, I’m told,” Bahl says disarmingly.
At Network18, Kapur kept a low profile. That has changed at Quintillion. She is the managing director, Bahl is chairman. “Ritu and I are partners,” says Bahl, talking about Kapur—something he never did earlier. At Network18, the couple kept the personal and professional separate. They did not drive to work together nor did their responsibilities overlap. Bahl had little to do with the History channel that had a partnership with TV18. Kapur oversaw the channel’s programming along with feature content for CNN-IBN. “Up until three years ago, she did not even have a cabin of her own,” Bahl says.
Now they are together and she is taking the lead. “She has acquired hell of a lot more experience and she is in a more active working stage in her life. She is in her 40s,” says Bahl, 51.
Bahl is charting a future without the hundreds of employees he left hugely disappointed at Network18. In his defence, he repeats what he has been saying ever since: “We did not have time, my back was to the wall when the loan was taken (from RIL).”
2011-12 was his toughest year at Network18. The debt was high and the markets had crashed. Bahl wouldn’t say if there were other investors in the fray, eager to rescue him. “Look, it was a bailout. I had a very good equation with Mr Ambani. I had known him for a long time...and I personally believe that he is an honourable man. He does what he says, I was comfortable.”
Bahl believes that for a first generation entrepreneur—his father was a Rajasthan-cadre IAS officer—life starts with debt and ends in debt. “In hindsight we made several mistakes, the primary being not keeping costs under control. We spoilt our employees. Life is one big lesson,” he says.
He learnt a few of them very early. A university-level squash player, he suffered a major health crisis at the age of 21; it led to four leg surgeries. “One day you are an athlete and next day you are physically disabled,” says Bahl, who uses a walking stick. “So, like I say, those lessons were learnt much earlier.”
Yoga keeps him fit and calm. Ten years ago, he suffered a slipped disc while playing golf. It was the day CNBC Awaaz was to be launched. He could not have missed the function as the prime minister had been invited. “I had no choice, I hobbled my way to the launch. But then I enrolled for yoga with a lady who was my mother’s age but extremely fit,” he recalls. Ever since, yoga and breathing exercises are a way of life, every day at 5am.
Bahl was not always a broadcaster. He started out at India Today’s video news magazine venture Newstrack. While Newstrack was a popular political video magazine, Ashok Advani, promoter of the fortnightly Business India, was keen to start a similar product in the business space. Work began on the project but with the Gulf war in 1990-91, satellite television in India exploded. It was soon clear that the days of video magazines were over; viewers were shifting to satellite TV.
That’s when Advani decided to get into television. The relationship between Bahl and Advani—who went on to launch BiTV—soured when Bahl declined to be part of the television venture. “There was a bit of a misunderstanding. But that was 20 years ago,” says Bahl. In 1993, Bahl launched TV18, which made shows for BBC and Doordarshan. Later, the company entered into a joint venture with Asia Business News (ABN), creating local content for it. Eventually, after ABN and CNBC merged in Singapore, TV18 signed a joint venture with CNBC to launch CNBC India in 1998. The joint venture was dissolved in 2003, when the government changed uplinking norms, making it mandatory to uplink from India. A foreign equity cap of 26% was also introduced. CNBC decided to move out of the equity relationship and agreed to a brand and content franchise relationship. The 15-year contact signed then will come up for renewal in 2018.
Bahl has been singularly successful in engaging big foreign media brands to work with him. Before his general English news channel with Rajdeep Sardesai and Sameer Manchanda was launched, CNN had already agreed to lend its brand name to the venture. However, Bahl gives the entire credit for the deal to his former CEO, Haresh Chawla. Chawla quit the company after Bahl signed the deal with Ambani.
“I say this with pride—I don’t think anybody in India has managed to run such diverse partnerships, where all the partners, and you can talk to them, have been very happy, be it CNBC, CNN, Viacom, Forbes or History Channel,” says Bahl. They were all large American companies partnering one Indian company. In this list only Viacom and History are equity relationships; the rest of them, Forbes, CNN and CNBC, are brand franchises.
Bahl has just finished writing his second book for Penguin: It takes the argument of the superpowers forward, brings the US into the China and India equation, and looks at the US’ role in the 21st century. There is ample time to write, he says—he dislikes socializing. A bit of a home bird, he likes to spend time with his family or in his study. “Who wants to get dressed and get out again?”
He misses being on television though, and might just start a syndicated show. “I don’t enjoy doing the daily stuff...but I would love to do something like the series that I did on Change India. That was not just news. The programme was based in public policy, so that kind of influences change.
“It’s early to write an autobiography. Give me another 10 years,” he says. “The second innings has just begun.”
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